Resisting Cultural Appropriation: A Human Response to the Inhumanity of Privilege

When I posted K. Tempest Bradford’s argument “that cultural appropriation is indefensible,” the first comment I received (from a white man) suggested cultural appropriation is unavoidable, mostly discounting Bradford’s challenges.

Once I replied, the same person added: “The solution is to change the power relationships, not to erect artificial cultural walls.”

First, when so-called racial minorities speak against inequity, whites often fail to listen, shouting over or offering the condescending “yes, but”—in the same way men correct and marginalize when women confront sexism and misogyny.

In the situation above, the typical white male moderate or even self-proclaimed progressive response is at play, something like “Let’s work toward a color-blind society!”

This ploy fails on several layers.

As noted already, it fails because the response replaces a willingness to listen, to value the perspective, and then to act in alliance.

But more broadly, the premise is also flawed because the goal is not to be a color-blind society or to eradicate cultural (or racial, or gender) walls, but to make our identifiable differences worthy of equal celebration and to insure that those differences never stand as markers for injustice, inequity, and dehumanization.

As Bradford asserts, cultural appropriation must always be resisted because the U.S. is a capitalistic and materialistic society in which each person’s dignity and the humanity of that person are inextricably tied to any identifiable group with which they are connected.

Further, the U.S. remains incredibly inequitable and unjust along race, class, and gender lines (among others).

Entertainers such as Elvis or Pat Boone at mid-twentieth century, for example, were allowed to benefit and profit greatly on the musical styles of blacks who were directly excluded from the same financial and entertainment opportunities.

More recently Vanilla Ice and Eminem represent the lingering power of cultural appropriation despite the Civil Rights movement and greater access to wealth and fame by blacks.

And the entrenched negligence and insensitivity of sport mascots—such as the Washington Redskins or Florida State Seminoles—stand as bold symbols that white privilege continues to trump genuine appreciation of diversity and essential human dignity within capitalism.

One key point in this debate, however, is understanding the basic human response to cultural appropriation among marginalized and oppressed groups.

For those marginalized groups to cling to and defend their culture is a human response to the inhumanity of privilege.

Blacks, for example, are still daily told that they as humans do not matter as much, do not count as much as whites (lower pay even with equal experience and education, greater incarceration without greater criminality, disproportionately higher rates of being shot and killed by police, etc.), and then, elements of black culture routinely are appropriated by whites as long as whites benefit and profit.

Throwing Shade in 2017 as a TV show hosted by two whites?

If we dig deep enough, we may well have to face that beneath racism and cultural appropriation we will unearth that capitalism is the root of all evil—monetizing everything above human dignity.

As long as we allow our larger culture to be grounded in the amorality of capitalism and materialism (supply and demand trumps ethics or morality), then we are doomed to inequity and injustice, in the form of racism, sexism, classism, etc.; those individuals and groups suffering that inequity, then, must reach for their humanity and dignity by clinging to that which the dominant group deems valuable.

If tearing down “artificial cultural walls” is a valid goal (and I am skeptical it is), then the only truly progressive response by those with race and gender privilege is to listen to those who resist cultural appropriation (and all inequity), to accept that resistance, and then to offer their privilege in solidarity to end the injustice—not to shout over or offer yet another bitter “yes, but.”